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The Voice: Early struggles point to open Big Ten race

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAt this early stage of the college football season, it appears to be a familiar story at the top of the rankings. The SEC is well represented, with four or five other teams still jockeying for position. Otherwise, it looks as though there will be some wide open races for conference championships.

That includes the Big Ten.

For now, this proud, tradition-rich league will have to put up with criticism from various pundits and fans across America. So far, the conference has not performed well in the bigger stage games. Fair or unfair, the jabs go with the territory.

However, it is fair to suggest that this is a league where several of the better programs are in transition, from new head coaches at Penn State and Ohio State, to new starting quarterbacks and wide receivers at Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The process of change can be painful at times, and three of the four above mentioned teams already have a loss. The fourth, Ohio State, while unbeaten, seems to be far from a finished product.

In the meantime, everyone just keeps working to get better. Including the Badgers, who last Saturday extended their home winning streak to 18 games.

No, it wasn't pretty, but no apologizes are needed either. Utah State has made a habit of taking BCS teams to the very end, and last weekend was no exception.

The game reminded me of the 1997 season, when the Badgers needed a late touchdown to beat Boise State 28-24. This was before Boise State became the national name it is today. Badgers quarterback Mike Samuel somehow avoided what would have been a game-sealing sack and converted a game-saving fourth-down play that led to the clinching score.

In college football, sometimes looking pretty can be important. Other times, it can be overrated. Right now for the Badgers, scoring one more point than the other guy is pretty enough.

They have company.

Take a look at Stanford. The Cardinal is coming off an emotionally charged victory against USC, a team many tabbed as a BCS favorite. The seven-point win against the Trojans is not the tightest game Stanford has played this season. So far, the closest call was against San Jose State. The Cardinal won that game 20-17. Not very pretty, but I would guess the good folks in Palo Alto said thank you very much and moved on.

Remember Oklahoma State, a team that last fall was on the cusp of playing for the national title? Like the Badgers, the Cowboys are 2-1. Unlike the Badgers, the one loss was a beat down, 59-38 at Arizona. I am guessing fans in Stillwater prefer winning ugly to losing ugly.

At the moment, the national stage shows a fairly clear separation between the national title contenders and the rest of the pack.

The Big Ten shows a much different picture. Each week, opinions vary on who is the best team. There is talent, but everyone shows a flaw or two. It will be interesting to see which team can make the most improvement in the shortest amount of time. In what is shaping up to be an up-for-grabs conference title chase, little if anything will be easy.

Something tells me that several teams in this league have their best work ahead of them. If I am right, the image of the league could change for the better sooner than later.

More importantly, it would lead to one crazy and entertaining season of Big Ten football.
ON WISCONSIN